Pertinax – the son of a Slave who became Roman Emperor, Simon Elliott

Pertinax – the son of a Slave who became Roman Emperor, Simon Elliott

Pertinax normally makes a very brief appearance in Roman history – as elderly and experienced soldier and son of a slave who briefly became Emperor after the fall of Commodus before being murdered by the Praetorian Guard. However as this biography makes clear he had already had a remarkable career by the time he was elevated to the Imperial throne, emerging from obscurity after beginning a military career unusually late in life, rising rapidly through the ranks and becoming a (largely) trusted subordinate to Marcus Aurelius.

It’s fair to say that there isn’t really enough known about Pertinax’s early and mid career to write a traditional biography, totally focused on the man and his deeds (indeed this is generally true for most ancient figures). We have a good idea of where he served, with what units, and at what rank, but very little detail (if any) on what he actually did in most of those posts. Elliott’s solution to this problem is to examine the world in which Pertinax moved, looking at what we know about the places he served, the roles he held and the units he served in, and to use that to give us an idea of what his life was probably like before he emerged into the foreground towards the end of his life. I rather like this approach – it avoids the sort of speculation you sometimes get in ancient biographies, and gives us a solid background for the better documented part of his life. We also get some fascinating material on the world of the freedmen and the ways in which Pertinax was able to rise to power.

It is really only in the final two chapters that Pertinax the man comes to the fore. He turns out to have been a very capable soldier, who survived a brief spell out of favour because his military skills were too valuable to lose, and who served as a provincial governor and Consul, reaching the highest posts available below that of Emperor! Even his final fall from power turns out to be less inevitable than shorter accounts might suggest, and owned much to his overconfidence, which led him to try and confront the Praetorians who were attacking the Palace instead of fleeing to more reliable supporters who may well have been able to defeat the guards.

The author has taken an unusual approach to a biography, but an effective one that gives us a clear idea of the sort of life the younger Pertinax must have lived, before the man himself comes into focus as he reached the higher ranks of the Imperial government.

1 – The Early Life of Pertinax
2 – Background: The Principate Empire
3 – Background: The Principate Military
4 – A Life in the Legions
5 – Squadron Commander to Provincial Governor
6 – Emperor of Rome

Author: Simon Elliott
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 320
Publisher: Greenhill Books
Year: 2020

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